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Test-Optional Admissions During COVID-19 #2

Part II: Problems

This is the second article in a two-part opinion series on test-optional policies during COVID-19. The first article, which provides definitions and background on these policies, can be found on the Blog page of our website. Now, let’s look at four major problems that we have identified with this year’s test-optional policies.

Problem 1: Mixed messages

It is not clear that college admissions committees that greatly value test scores will realistically be able to place the student who submits high SAT or ACT scores on equal footing with the student who submits no scores, all other things being equal. Just look at what some colleges are saying on their website, such as Columbia University:

“If students have completed testing and can submit SAT or ACT results, we encourage them to do so as we believe this information can be a valuable addition in our review process. However, testing is no longer a required component for the first-year 2020-2021 application cycle, and students who are unable or choose not to submit test scores will not be disadvantaged.”

Cornell University’s admissions language goes even further:

“In Cornell’s review during the 2020-2021 application cycle, results from the ACT or SAT might still be a meaningful differentiator in particular for students who:

– live near or attend a school that will be open, and where testing will be offered, or who live near a testing center that will be offering more testing seats or dates than they did in 2019; and

– have not experienced lost income for one or more of their household providers or other significant new hardships and losses during 2020.

So, Cornell believes that scores can be a “meaningful differentiator” for students who can take the test and aren’t economically impacted in a significant way by the pandemic. How will the Cornell admissions committee decide whether an applicant does or does not meet their criteria? Also, what if a student is reluctant to sit in a room with several other potentially infectious individuals because the student or a family member is at high risk for complications with a COVID-19 infection? The new policies, combined with these superficially ambiguous statements by the colleges’ admissions offices, are creating a lot of stress for already-stressed out students, which brings us to Problem 2.

Problem 2: Health concerns

What about the health of our students and their families? What if a student or their family member has asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes or other chronic health conditions? Is it worth it for students to sit for multi-hour exams in close proximity to potentially infectious people they don't live with, jeopardizing their own health and that of their family members, just because a college believes that exam score is a "meaningful differentiator"? We still don’t have a vaccine.

Problem 3: Wasted time

As anyone who has taken the SAT or ACT knows, achieving a strong score can require dozens or even hundreds of hours of study. Students attempting to take the SAT or ACT this year have found themselves preparing repeatedly for tests that are scheduled, cancelled, and rescheduled. We think that preparing for tests that may or may not happen is a waste of students’ valuable time. This summer presents an opportunity for students who embrace this rare moment of freedom to create or learn something entirely for the sake of creating and learning, to relax and reconnect with friends, or to have other meaningful experiences.

Problem 4: Not optional

It is unlikely that all students will have equal opportunity to take the test due to vagaries of the spread of COVID-19 and other regional circumstances. Therefore, for students who do not have scores because they were unable to sit for tests, there will be no “option” to submit or not submit test scores. These test-optional policies will favor those students who took the very test early and scored very well.

You might ask, what’s the problem with that? Don’t the early birds deserve extra consideration? There are a couple problems with this. First, a lot of students who are academically strong don’t take the test for the first time until spring of junior year so that they can do their very best the first time around, after they have had more math and English. Second, many students with overburdened school counselors may not even know to take the test until spring of junior year or fall of senior year. This isn’t a level playing field, which means that test-optional is, in fact, not “optional.”

The solution: test-blind admissions

Many reliable sources have weighed in on the benefits and drawbacks of test-optional policies for predicting student success in college, including the University of California system,, and the College Board itself. Because the added value of test scores remains undecided, is a test score worth the added effort and anxiety, in addition to health risks and lost opportunities, for this year’s rising seniors?

We believe it is not worth it and that the answer is to drop SAT and ACT requirements this year altogether. After all, the California State University system made the bold decision to go test blind this year, which eliminated one (SAT/ACT score) of only two metrics that it uses to calculate an applicant’s academic index (the other being GPA). Surely then, colleges that use holistic-review methods to evaluate several different academic and non-academic metrics in students’ applications can also go test blind. We are willing to bet that using only information about courses, grades, essays, activities lists, honors and awards, and in many cases letters of recommendation, demonstrated interest, and interviews, colleges will be able to select diverse cohorts of kind, intellectually curious, academically qualified, hard-working students to complete their campus community next year.

Please stay tuned for the final part of our series, in which we will share our thoughts about how students and their families may want to consider these issues as they plan for the fall admissions cycle.

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